The life of Death in Venice

How the novella be­came an opera

BBC Music Magazine - - Death In Venice -

Many of the events traced in Brit­ten’s Death in Venice ac­tu­ally hap­pened in real life. They hark back to 1911 when the Ger­man au­thor Thomas Mann, suf­fer­ing from writer’s block, vis­ited the de­cay­ing Ital­ian city with his wife Ka­tia. They stayed at the Grand Ho­tel des Bains on the Lido where Mann en­coun­tered a Pol­ish fam­ily and their beau­ti­ful teenage son, who be­came an ob­ject of erotic fas­ci­na­tion for him. The boy’s name was W¯adys¯aw Moes, his nick­name W¯adzio – it’s not the big­gest leap to the Tadzio of Mann’s 1912 novella.

But the book has a rich hin­ter­land too, stretch­ing right back to Plato. Mann draws on Greek myth, the gods Apollo and Diony­sus, Sig­mund Freud’s the­o­ries of mind and Ni­et­zsche’s phi­los­o­phy, weav­ing them into a story that ex­plores thwarted ho­mo­sex­ual de­sire, the pass­ing of time, youth, old age and the cre­ative process. These themes united Mann and Brit­ten.

There was an­other artist, too, who was in­ter­ested in adapt­ing Mann’s work. Luchino Vis­conti’s film was re­leased in 1971, a year af­ter Brit­ten be­gan work on his opera. The com­poser was ad­vised not to watch it, in case he be ac­cused of pla­gia­rism. He needn’t have wor­ried, as there were marked dif­fer­ences: Vis­conti reimag­ines Gus­tav von Aschen­bach as a com­poser rather than writer. It was an in­ter­est­ing twist, espe­cially given that Mann had re­put­edly based his pro­tag­o­nist on a photo of Mahler. The screen ver­sion is more ex­plicit and provoca­tive than ei­ther the book or opera; all three have made their mark on 20th-cen­tury cul­ture.

Wicker Mann: the nov­el­ist at his Cal­i­for­nia home in 1944

Naval gaz­ing: Dirk Bog­a­rde and Björn An­drésen in Vis­conti’s film Death in Venice

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